Brain plasticity: A whole new idea for cops

Recent brain research has tremendous impact in the way officers can now train and increase the power of their brains

Famed novelist John Steinbeck once wrote, “The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain.”

Think about that last line. The final weapon is the brain.

I don’t think Steinbeck realized how amazingly profound his statement would be particularly in light of recent scientific findings. Neural Plasticity or Brain Plasticity may be foreign words to the law enforcement community, but recent brain research has tremendous impact in the way officers can now train and increase the power of their brains. According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists and founder of Posit Science Corporation, brain plasticity is the greatest discovery in brain science in the past 400 years.

It was previously thought that the brain we were born with developed as we grew and then began to deteriorate in our senior years. Terms like, “senior moments” have crept into our vocabulary as individuals approach old age and feel they are losing their memory. Even my kids at very young ages in grade school had “brain farts.” I can’t remember (hmmm) how many times I had to turn around to get a forgotten lunch or homework. Although forgetfulness can occur at any age, unfortunately for many seniors, this has become truly a self-fulfilling prophecy that can be changed.

Growing Your Brain
It was also firmly believed that specific regions of the brain were entirely responsible for various functions, such as vision, hearing, speech, movement, etc. This was called brain localization. Guess what? New scientific research and evidence has proven that this is entirely wrong and the brain can continue to develop and change throughout our lives. The importance of this research is so significant that it can be compared to early explorers discovering that the world wasn’t flat! Research has proven that even if one of our senses is damaged or if the brain itself is damaged other areas of the brain can take over and be developed. These recent findings provide significant opportunities for education, mental health, aging, and treating people through brain training.

What has now been proven by researchers, such as Dr. Merzenich is that our brain can continue to create new “neural connections” until the day we die. The term plasticity comes into play in that the human brain constantly adapts and changes itself throughout our lives. However, there is a caveat to this. We must continue to work and train the brain specifically with new exercises and challenges or much like our muscles the brain will atrophy.

The phrase “use it or loose it!” definitely applies. Dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease are now believed to be linked to the brain atrophying. There now are remarkable treatments for these insidious maladies with programs designed by the Posit Science Corporation. Through specific audible and visual training regimes individuals with these diseases have significantly improved and even overcome them.

Equally important are brain plasticity exercises can be effective in the prevention of these horrendous and life changing maladies. Think of the impact this can have for a parent or grandparent who has or appears to be loosing their memory and be thinking of your own brain functions as you age.

So what in the world does this have to do with cops and keeping you safer on the streets? Actually, it has everything to do with how we train our brains to respond to threats and danger. Whether it be driving a squad car or confronting an armed felon, the visual cortex in our brain can be trained through brain plasticity to have better acuity and precision in what we perceive. How we react to any situation is the culmination of our neural networks and brain functions.

Rapid Threat Recognition
Five-plus years ago, I returned from a counterterrorism training mission in Israel convinced that American law enforcement had to change the way we train officers. I formed Observation On Demand, a research and training company and began a personal quest with the specific purpose of training law enforcement and security professionals how to increase their visual acuity and critical thinking skills. When you think about it, how we perceive the world or more specifically how we perceive critical situations has direct consequences to their outcome. In other words, if we don’t observe a situation precisely and correctly we make mistakes that can cost lives, including our own.

When I began what I call Rapid Threat Recognition training I was amazed by the initial results using a methodology that was first used by the military to train pilots how to identify friendly (versus enemy) aircraft. Using a firearms simulation system to conduct a pre- and post-test for target acquisition, officers were almost immediately averaging a 30 percent increase in their ability to rapidly recognize a target doing the exercises in an eight-hour class. I consulted with psychologists, neurologists, and other specialists to try to learn as much as I could about what was occurring in the brain with this type of training.

Recently, I had the privilege and honor to meet with Dr. Merzenich, who spent almost six hours explaining the science behind what I was doing.

He said, “Somehow you intuitively have picked up on brain plasticity, now let me tell to you how it works.”

He went on to explain that using specific exercises that get to the core of the visual cortex can improve one’s ability to see more accurately. Once accuracy and visual precision are enhanced, speed can be increased as the neural connections in the brain are strengthened. What the doc explained is how neurons in our brain connect and strengthen when we exercise them — neurons that fire together wire together. Posit Science Corporation has recently developed a driving program that uses game like visual exercises to improve both visual acuity, peripheral vision, and reaction time. A group called Designs for Strong Minds has some good brain games too.

Although these may appear to be child-like games, they are very powerful and scientifically designed to stimulate and improve the core of the visual cortex. Not only do these game exercises adjust to the level of the user, but they record the progress and give user feedback. With as little as twenty minutes of training a day, several times a week significant results can be obtained in as short as a month of training. I personally have been doing the exercises daily and have improved my peripheral vision by 80 percent and notice the difference.

The results of this program are so impressive that the AAA Motor club has purchased the program for their customers, and sale to another large insurance firm is pending. It is also available online at The changes that can be made to increase visual acuity and reaction time may be able to reduce auto accidents by as much as 50 percent, as proven in current research projects. One of the wonderful things about these programs is what is called “transference”. This means that not only are driving skills enhanced, but anything that uses the visual cortex such as threat recognition, target acquisition and even reading speed and accuracy can be enhanced through the same exercises.

Law enforcement administrators are notorious “slow adaptors”. Phrases like “we have always done it that way” often prevail. However with the continued number of officer deaths, increased litigation, trying to do more with less and significant new challenges being faced by LE, the law enforcement community must embrace new ways of doing the job. Brain plasticity and brain training exercises are the means to get the edge on our adversaries and improve officer safety. With a very small investment and a minimal amount of time, officers can train themselves to increase their visual acuity and critical decision making skills.

To use a poor pun: “Sounds like a no-brainer!”

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